Since taking over the Astoria Riverwalk Inn for the Port of Astoria two years ago, business partners Chester Trabucco and William Orr have provided stability and invested significant sums in modernizing the 115-room hotel.
As the partners seek to create a larger tourist destination around the West Mooring Basin, they are closing in on a lease of the neighboring Chinook Building, a collection of office and tourist storefronts where they hope to open a new conference center.
The Port has been in negotiations for the past year with Trabucco and Orr about leasing the 15,000-square-foot building to their company, Marina Village. The lease would be for 20 years, with two 20-year extension options. Marina Village would pay the Port $5,800 a month, compared to the $4,200 staff have estimated the Port currently makes, along with utilities. Rent would increase based on the consumer price index.
The duo hope to keep the existing tourist-oriented businesses on the first floor of the Chinook Building, improve the exterior and develop the 7,500 square feet upstairs into a conference space, a similar function the building played for the former Red Lion Inn.
During a recent pitch to the Port Commission, Orr pointed out how the agency can see about 400 rooms from its main offices.
“If we can add a conference space on the second floor of the Chinook Building … then we can go out and market this area — our hotel first, but the rest of the guys too — and get some of that business that we need so that we can at least come close to breaking even during the winter,” he said.
In a report to the Port Commission, staff said the lease would increase revenue and decrease maintenance, while resolving operational issues between the agency and seafood market Northwest Wild Products, a tenant and tourist draw in the Chinook Building.
A portion of the Chinook Building’s upstairs was remodeled five years ago by the Astoria Yacht Club. Astoria City Councilor Tom Brownson, the vice commodore of the yacht club, said the club is generally supportive of Orr and Trabucco’s ideas. Trabucco said a yacht club and its theme could be used to market the conference space.
A sticking point in the negotiations has been Marina Village’s interest in taking out a sizable loan to improve the building, which faces major issues with utilities, a broken elevator, previous roof damage and several thousand square feet of unfinished space upstairs.
“The collateral for the loan consisted only of the personal property of Marina Village,” the Port staff report said. “This was deemed too small in value to secure the size of the loan being contemplated. What was needed was a lien on the building itself.”
Should the Marina Village seek a loan, staff said, the Port Commission would have to decide whether to allow the lender to take out a lien providing the lender interest in the Chinook Building. The Port has used a similar strategy with Bornstein Seafoods, whose former processing space in downtown Astoria was used as collateral on a loan to build a new plant on the central waterfront.
Trabucco said Marina Village has not used financing on the hotel but would like to have such an option available for the Chinook Building.
While the Port faced numerous issues with former Riverwalk Inn operator Brad Smithart and sued him several times over nonpayment of rent, Port staff and commissioners have largely lauded the job done by Orr and Trabucco. Last summer, the Port Commission granted the pair’s company — Astoria Hospitality Ventures — a two-year extension on its lease of the hotel, which goes through October 2018.
Orr, an Astoria native, is an attorney and seafood processing executive in Seattle. Trabucco, a developer, previously renovated Astoria’s Hotel Elliott and other buildings and owned the No. 10 Sixth Street building, a commercial waterfront complex that burned down in 2010.
Since taking over the Riverwalk Inn, the duo have brought 25 additional rooms into use, remodeled 15 others, added amenities such as fire pits and made other upgrades throughout the hotel. Trabucco credited Smithart with handing them a functioning hotel two years ago.
“Brad put the new carburetor and transmission in the car,” he said. “When we got it, all we had to do was paint it.”
As part of the recent pitch to lease the Chinook Building, Trabucco, Orr and their interior architect Karen Niemi presented the company’s plan to expand the hotel’s dining area, currently a thin corridor behind the lobby where hundreds of guests can vie for fewer than 30 seats. Niemi said the plan is turn two existing rooms into additional seating, install a bar and extend a deck facing the mooring basin, adding about 50 seats.
Hanging over Trabucco and Orr’s operation of the hotel is a lawsuit filed in 2015 against the Port by Param Hotel Corp., which had competed to take over Smithart’s lease. Param claims the Port violated a previous agreement and showed favoritism toward Orr, whose brother-in-law, Stephen Fulton, was a Port commissioner when Astoria Hospitality Ventures took over.
Orr and Trabucco were removed as co-defendants in the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial in October. But if Param prevails, the Port could be forced to give the Portland company operation of the hotel.
In a perfect world, Trabucco said, the issue would be settled, although the Port seems confident in its case. Marina Village could be interested in leasing the Chinook Building regardless of how the lawsuit on the hotel goes.
The intent is for Astoria Hospitality Ventures to finish the dining room expansion in the near future, but that “we’ve pretty much done what we intend to do before the lawsuit is over,” he said.